This ornate rumination on depression features a stunning central turn by Audrey Tautou.
The slow, insidious descent into bitter depression is the central motif of Thérèse Desqueyroux, written by François Mauriac in 1927. It’s a dense, claustrophobic tale of the aristocratic Thérèse (Audrey Tautou) who marries the provincial but rich Bernard (Gilles Lellouche). Subsequently, she attempts to poison her husband with arsenic in order to escape the confines of her marriage.
Mauriac wrote of his book: "I used some devices that came from the silent films: lack of preparation, the sudden opening, flashbacks. They were methods that were new and surprising at that time." These techniques translated into literature return in Miller’s film like Chinese whispers. Tempered by an unsettling chronology dictated by Thérèse’s diminishing mental state, the style of the film subtly harks back to early filmmaking's formative years.
Some of Miller’s abiding themes from films past are also present here. He deals with the emotional blossoming of young women, as he did so brilliantly in 1985’s L’Effrontée,where a 14-year-old Charlotte Gainsbourg sparkled with equal parts rebelliousness and vulnerability. And again in 1988’s La Petite Voleuse, where Gainsbourg returned as a girl who longs for maturity and freedom. Here, cruelly, the story of Thérèse seems like a continuation. But the freedom, the rebellion and the optimism of youth have been suffocated by familial obligation and etiquette. Instead we see a woman in mourning for a future that failed to materialise.
Momentarily, Miller also falls into what some will decry as a pastiche of Terrence Malick’s romanticisation of the natural sublime, but as much as Thérèse falls into familiar territory, it also contains momentsof brilliance. In addition to a simmering Sapphic desire between Thérèse and her sister-in-law Anne (Anaïs Demoustier), there are numerous shots and motifs that harrowingly summon the bell jar of depression.
Claude Miller died before the film’s release, so this is his swansong.
There are moments of brilliance. But just moments.
Rich themes, beautifully illustrated. But fails to wow.